REVIEW: The Little Hours

25 06 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Raunchy comedies set in a distant past always run the risk of relying too heavily on anachronistic humor. (Cough, “A Million Ways to Die in the West.”) The humor that arises from performers in period garb rattling off profanities or talking in the present-day vernacular is the definition of low-hanging fruit.

Jeff Baena’s “The Little Hours” tends to lean on this dissonance to generate comedy. Aubrey Plaza dropping F-bombs in a nun’s habit is inherently pretty darn funny. Whether it leans too heavily on the ahistorical humor is up to the individual viewer – I found it a little overloaded – but thankfully it’s not the only trick Baena has up his sleeve.

The film’s story, adapted from the Medieval novella “The Decameron,” finds laughs from sending up the era’s sexual repression and religious rigor. Three naughty nuns (Plaza, Alison Brie and scene-stealer Kate Micucci) toil away in their convent under the watchful eye of John C. Reilly’s Father Tommasso, lamenting their inability to act on certain desires. Luckily, Dave Franco’s chesty handyman Massetto arrives to light their flames.

This feudal Rudolph Valentino escapes one manor, where as servant he beds the master’s wife, and gets smuggled into the nunnery pretending to be a deaf mute. Thinking him unable to hear them, the sisters let loose with some of their wildest sexual fantasies – some of which they consummate to his delight and horror. “The Little Hours” is certainly a one-of-a-kind sex comedy, worth seeing for its brazenness alone and worth staying for Fred Armisen’s Bishop Bartolomeo, who arrives at the end to scold them all with a poker-faced gall. B

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 8, 2016)

8 09 2016

year-of-the-dogAs someone who lives with two canine companions, I can certainly sympathize with Molly Shannon’s Peggy in “Year of the Dog.” Relationships with humans are tough. How dare they do this, but they actually want something in return from us. They make demands of our time and thought. Dogs like Peggy’s beloved Pencil simply live to please us, offering love and affection no matter our mood or deeds that day.

But, as every child in a film about a dog knows, we almost always outlive our dogs. Peggy faces this lesson sooner than expected when Pencil gets into some toxic chemicals and cannot be saved by a veteran. What comes next for someone who puts all her eggs into the basket of her beloved animal makes for quite a melancholy comedy from writer/director Mike White.

Rather than using her period of mourning to deepen or enrich her relationship with neighbors, coworkers or family members, Peggy entrenches herself even further into animal advocacy and obsession. She becomes a vegan, brings home abused shelter dogs by the carful to save them from euthanasia and even “adopts” farm animals in lieu of holiday gifts. It’s decidedly odd turn of events, yet Molly Shannon resists playing her character as some kind of lunatic. The performance resembles a quieter, more mellow version of her notorious “Saturday Night Live” characters – all of their insecurities without all the theatricality to mask the wounds.

“Year of the Dog” is my choice for “F.I.L.M. of the Week” not only because of Shannon’s raw performance but also because of where Mike White takes it. While he shows compassion for everyone, White is not afraid to steer the film into dark and bittersweet territory. He is unafraid to suggest that Peggy might not need the human connections we expect her to develop over the course of the film. She might just need the certainty of her own convictions and the courage to follow the path she thinks will bring her the happiness she seeks.





REVIEW: Other People

6 09 2016

other-peopleSundance Film Festival

Chris Kelly’s “Other People” was the first film I saw at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016. Had it also been the only film I saw, I think I could have left Park City feeling wholly satisfied.

This personal, deeply felt tale about a struggling writer (Jesse Plemons’ David) who comes home to take care of his cancer-stricken mother (Molly Shannon’s Joanne) contains everything people have come to expect from a quote-unquote “Sundance movie.” It’s a dramedy with real heart, surprising performances from a vast ensemble and a little something to say about the constant battle to claim one’s identity. David, an openly gay twenty-something who still has yet to receive approval from his stern father (Bradley Whitford’s Norman), marks a refreshing change of representation. He’s allowed to be defined by something other than his sexuality without denying him romance.

But “Other People” goes beyond delivering the expected. It reminds you why we love these kinds of movies to begin with, why we’re willing to sit through countless half-baked similar films to get one this moving.

You will marvel at how much the people in this film bear a resemblance to someone in your own life. You will feel that you lived a year with this bereaved family, not just watched scenes about them for under 100 minutes. And shockingly, you will come to like – and probably cry to – Train’s “Drops of Jupiter.” Not just during the movie, either. Let’s just say you heard it at the gym. It might make you emotional there. (What, who? Me? Was that me?)

Oh, and you will weep. GOSH, did I weep during the screening. The crowd at the post-show Q&A I attended essentially posed no questions. It just featured people who tearfully ran through stories of their own tragic losses and how “Other People” resonated with them. Had I been able to gain composure amidst the veritable lake of tears surrounding my chair, I likely would have done the same.

I saw the film just days after losing a friend my own age – just 23 – to the same kind of cancer that afflicts Joanne. I remained stoic in the days following her passing, almost in disbelief that she just wasn’t here anymore. “Other People” played a crucial, cathartic role in helping me finally feel what happened. The film gave me a space in which I could work through the conflicting sets of emotions and make sense of what seems so unfair and yet so inevitable. While I could write impersonally about Kelly’s work and describe some kind of generalized viewer, it does a disservice to experiencing the film. This affected me because these tragedies affect us.

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REVIEW: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

27 06 2015

Me and EarlOn its face, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” amounts to a fairly simple calculation.  Jesse Andrews, adapting his own novel for the screen, takes the YA weepie “The Fault in Our Stars” and makes teen cancer more palatable by injecting a healthy dosage of hyper-mature, cinematically literate narration comparable to “Easy A.”

If someone asked me to quickly describe this movie, I would probably use some combination of the two movies listed above – and it would be a positive recommendation.  But, like any good movie, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is far more than just its sales pitch or just the sum of its influences.

For starters, the film features a vividly realized protagonist in Thomas Mann’s Greg Gaines.  I am still a little uneasy by the egocentric nature of the tale, especially given his interactions with Olivia Cooke’s Rachel Kushner, a classmate undergoing grueling treatment for leukemia.  But the more I reflect on the movie, the more I come to assume this was intended.  After all, “Me” does come first in the title.

Greg reminds me a lot of myself in high school, and I suspect anyone like me who takes the time to write out their thoughts about “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” will probably have some line to the same effect in their review.  He’s a droll, quick-witted teenage cinephile who would rather create and consume fabricated narratives than blaze one of his own.  Greg fashions himself as nothing more than a loser trying to quietly suffer beneath the cliques that dominate the high school hallways, though his detailed taxonomy of every social group demonstrates that he believes himself above them as well.

At first, I wondered why I had such a hard time connecting with Greg.  If he reminds me so much of myself, why should I not embrace this character with whom I so often nod in painful recognition?  Then, I made an important realization – maybe people like Greg (and, by extension, myself) are not the easiest to love.  Especially towards the end of the film, where I slowly stopped identifying with him, Greg begins drowning himself in a toxic combination of self-loathing and self-awareness.

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REVIEW: Life After Beth

13 12 2014

Life After BethAs the executives at Lifetime have now discovered with their ingenious “Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever,” Aubrey Plaza is today’s most lovable curmudgeon.  Her dourly misanthropic attitude paradoxically lights up any scene in which she appears.  “Life After Beth” is to Plaza what “Maleficent” was to Angelina Jolie – an ode to a certain defining essence.

Plaza’s Beth starts off the film dead, then all of a sudden is inexplicably walking around among the living.  This comes much to the confused delight of her devastated former boyfriend Zach, played by Dane DeHaan.  Tasked with playing the straight man in a “Ruby Sparks” style romance, where the girl is undead instead of imaginary, DeHaan opts for strung-out angst to contrast Plaza’s snarky charm.

Their strange reunion starts off under the guise of a comedy, which makes a great deal of sense given that Plaza’s pop cultural presence has been mostly relegated to “Parks and Recreation.” (That’s mainly because no one saw the undeservedly underseen “Safety Not Guaranteed” and no one knew who she was when she appeared in 2009’s “Funny People.”)  But all of a sudden, and without any real reason, “Life After Beth” shifts gears to become an action film.  Nothing ever hints at the fact that it will eventually morph into “World War Z.”

DeHaan, in an interview with Seth Meyers, referred to the film as a “zom-com-rom-dram.”  Kudos to writer/director Jeff Baena for attempting so much, but this novel mixture proves far too many genres than “Life After Beth” can handle in its slim 90-minute runtime.  Plaza definitely does a better impersonation of the possessed demon child from “The Exorcist” than Jonah Hill in “This is The End,” which is about the extent of the compliments that can be paid to the film’s bizarre back half.

Perhaps its action-packed conclusion would feel more earned if Beth had more time to develop as a character.  But it looks like “Life After Beth” is really just going to be good for a few entertaining GIFs on a BuzzFeed list about grouchy people.  C2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 3, 2012)

3 08 2012

Well, if I hadn’t taken a number of hiatuses, my 100th entry in the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” series (that’s First Class, Independent Little-Known Movie, just a reminder) would have come around June or July 2011.  But a belated milestone is still a milestone, so I’m going to celebrate by writing about “Wet Hot American Summer,” perhaps one of the most underappreciated cult comedies of recent memory.  Starring just about all your favorite comedians WAY before they were famous, it’s a hilarious time capsule that surely needs to be opened if you are a fan of anyone in the massive cast!

It’s the last day of summer at a Jewish camp in Maine – in 1981, no less – so that means everyone is trying to attend to some unfinished business.  The movie juggles a ton of storylines in an hour and a half, some of which don’t work as well as others, I’ll admit.  A number of the jokes are just so stupid, you have to wonder whether you want to laugh or just cringe.

But director David Wain, who later found commercial success and critical acclaim with “Role Models,” just never lets the relentless onslaught of over-the-top, farcical comedy end.  And for that, it could make for a “Napoleon Dynamite”-style viewing trajectory: perhaps just some chuckling the first time, and then those giggles turn into full-on belly laughs as the nuances of the humor reveal themselves over multiple viewings.

It’s certainly worth watching to see the beginnings of Paul Rudd’s caustic humor, albeit slightly more hammed up, as an airheaded horndog lifeguard who can really cop an attitude.  The object of his affection, at least momentarily, is Elizabeth Banks – until he decides she tastes like hamburgers and doesn’t like her anymore.

Amy Poehler is another scene-stealer as Susie, the bossy, controlling counselor in charge of theater intending to stage a number of “Godspell” as if she were working on Broadway.  What makes her character even better, though, is that she is flanked by preppy, Lacoste-clad minion Ben at all times.  Now, Ben is played by none other than Phil Wenneck himself, Bradley Cooper.  His PR people have done a mighty great job keeping this movie on the down low … I’ll let you find out for yourself why he probably doesn’t want many people to discover this early role of his.  I think it’s absolutely hilarious, as is the rest of the movie, and I highly recommend you find out Bradley Cooper’s surprise and many other raunchy delights I didn’t even mention in this cursory overview!